Merricat goes through the gate to the path on her family’s property. Before her father closed the path, the villagers used to use it as a shortcut, but her mother didn’t like them to. The Blackwoods’ guests come up the driveway from the highway. Merricat used to think of the driveway as the place for the good people and the path as the place for the sneaking villagers. She was relieved when the villagers could no longer use the path. She feels safe once she locks the gate behind her. The land is forested, and she knows it better than anyone. Constance never strays past the house and the garden.
The brief background that Merricat provides about the path indicates that, even before the poisoning, the Blackwoods isolated themselves from the village and may have seen the villagers as their inferiors. It’s likely, then, that the villagers hate the sisters for this attitude. Merricat, however, reinforces this way of thinking, often imagining the villagers as strangers and generally horrible people. After this scene, Merricat never leaves her land again.
Constance meets Merricat at the end of the garden, teasing that before long she’ll be going all the way into the village. Merricat doesn’t like this idea. She used to draw pictures of Constance as a fairy princess because she was always so bright. Merricat’s cat, Jonas, follows the sisters into the house. Merricat locks the front door, because they mostly live in the back of the house and on the lawn, where no one can see them.
Constance is even more isolated than Merricat, fearing to go so far as the woods. At this point, however, she hopes to conquer these fears in the future, believing that seeing the villagers would be a good thing. Merricat, however, wants to keep Constance within their property, acting almost as a jailor, as she wants Constance all to herself.
Uncle Julian is sitting at his desk in the corner of the kitchen. Constance puts the groceries away, since Merricat isn’t allowed to deal with the food. Constance plans their lunch, remarking how happy she is whenever Merricat comes home from the village. Merricat declines to tell her how bad the village was, and Constance says she’ll go someday, which worries Merricat.
At this point, it seems logical to infer that Constance forbids Merricat from dealing with food, although later it will become clear that Merricat actually forbids herself. Constance’s thoughts dwell on her potential reentry into the world. Merricat’s reaction indicates this is a new train of thought for Constance.
Uncle Julian says he doesn’t have any information on whether the girls’ father had a cigar on the morning he’s studying. Merricat watches Constance put the library books on the shelf, where they’ll stay forever, and prepare the food. She asks whether Constance is afraid because Helen Clarke is coming to visit. Constance says she isn’t. A few acquaintances still visit for a few minutes every so often, though the sisters never return the calls. These people think they help the family, and they always go only where they’re supposed to in the house. Sometimes Mr. and Mrs. Carrington drive up and chat from their car, but they never come inside.
Though it isn’t yet fully revealed, Uncle Julian is studying the circumstances of the poisoning, and his inquiry about the cigar shows the level of almost ridiculous detail he investigates while he unwittingly has the murderer right in front of him. The Clarkes and the Carringtons visit out of a sense of duty more than out of a real fondness for the family, as evidenced by their stilted visits. Constance seems to have some general social anxiety, if Helen Clarke’s visit might frighten her.
Merricat teases that the Carringtons might bring her a horse if she asked, then says she really only wants a winged horse, so that they could fly to the moon. Uncle Julian says that the sisters’ parents had a fight on the last night, though they rarely fought. Constance says it doesn’t seem like it’s been six years, and she wishes she could have them back.
Merricat’s wish to go to the moon even when she isn’t in an immediately unpleasant situation suggests that she’s not entirely happy with her life at home. Constance’s desire to have her family back raises the question of how she relates to Merricat while knowing that Merricat killed them.
The house was only supposed to be a summer house, since the family should have had the Rochester house for winters. The windows in the drawing room go all the way to the ceiling. The room is beautiful and the sisters keep it clean, though they only use it for Helen Clarke’s visits. Their mother always kept the room perfectly, and her portrait hangs there. Constance serves tea just where her mother did. Merricat isn’t allowed to pour the tea. Constance sets the table as usual for this visit, which is the last time Helen Clarke will ever come to tea.
The sisters’ mother seems to live on in her drawing room, just as their father lives on in his study. Through serving tea in her mother’s place, Constance takes on her mother’s legacy. It seems Merricat can’t pour tea because this action gives her too much access to what the guests will drink, suggesting that she doesn’t trust herself not to poison them and that she does, perhaps, feel guilty about her family’s deaths.
Merricat watches at the window. She asks whether Constance is frightened, which Constance denies. When Helen Clarke’s car arrives, there are two people in it. Merricat wants to send Helen away, but Constance says she’ll be all right. Merricat goes onto the porch and is relieved to see that Helen has only brought Mrs. Wright, who has come before. When they enter the hall, Helen Clarke gives Merricat the opportunity to warn Constance of who the visitor is. When Merricat returns to the hall, Helen Clarke is telling Mrs. Wright about the origins of the staircase.
Merricat’s insistence that Constance might be frightened by the visit implies that she wants Constance to be frightened, because she wants Constance to depend on her. Merricat is protective of her sister to an unhealthy degree. Notably, she also wants to regulate who enters the house, even if she chalks this impulse up to Constance’s fear.
The guests enter the drawing room, and Helen Clarke’s awkwardness forces Mrs. Wright to sit in a corner, while she herself sits too close to Constance. They chat about gardening, and only Merricat can see that Constance is nervous. Mrs. Wright says she would love to meet Uncle Julian, and Helen Clarke says he’s eccentric, though Merricat thinks Helen is far more eccentric.
Helen Clarke is a bumbling, foolish character throughout the book, but she generally acts in a much more socially acceptable manner than anyone else. The fact that Merricat thinks Helen is eccentric gestures to Merricat’s existence within her own reality. Normal villagers, to her, are strange.
Helen Clarke says she’s going to give Constance advice, as a friend. Merricat has a bad feeling about this advice. Helen Clarke says that Constance should return to the world. Recently, Constance would have dismissed these words, but now she listens. Merricat interrupts the discussion to point out that there’s no milk. She goes to the kitchen to fetch it.
The reader has met Constance at a time of change, when she is just beginning to consider ending her six years of isolation. Thus, she is receptive to Helen’s urging in this direction.
Merricat realizes that three times today, Constance has mentioned entering the outside world. She begins to panic. She smashes a pitcher on the table and leaves the shards for Constance to see. Then she brings milk back to the drawing room, where the women are discussing how Constance might return to society.
Though Merricat thinks Constance is terrified of the outside world, Merricat herself is terrified of losing her control over Constance. Here, she displays her unpredictability and her willingness to take drastic steps without a sense of conscience. She acts far younger than her eighteen years.
Merricat brings a cup of tea to Mrs. Wright, whose hand shakes when she takes it. She offers sugar, but Mrs. Wright refuses. Merricat realizes that Mrs. Wright has worn black on purpose, but Merricat doesn’t feel it’s right for her mother’s drawing room. She brings Mrs. Wright rum cakes to make her unhappy, mentioning that Constance made them.
Mrs. Wright is afraid of the tea and cakes because she fears they might be poisoned. She certainly can’t accept the sugar, since the Blackwoods were poisoned by their sugar. But Merricat doesn’t think mourning clothes should be worn in her mother’s drawing room, even though her mother is dead.
Helen Clarke eats numerous sandwiches. Merricat believes that Helen Clarke thinks she can act however she likes because the sisters are so glad of her company. She imagines Helen Clarke wearing her worst clothes to their house, and then she imagines her sitting trapped in a tree and screaming. Helen Clarke suggests that Constance might have a dinner party. Merricat says she could ask the villagers, and Helen Clarke insists that Merricat exaggerates the villagers’ dislike of the family.
Though Helen Clarke thinks she’s doing the sisters a favor by visiting, Merricat sees her as an invader who disrupts the balance of the house. Helen Clarke obviously has no sense of how much the villagers hate the family. She suggests a dinner party, which would be the worst possible option considering that everyone associates the Blackwoods with being poisoned at dinner.
Merricat thinks Constance is beginning to look tired. She hears Uncle Julian coming and opens the door. Helen Clarke asks whether people would be afraid to visit the house. Uncle Julian greets the visitors, though he doesn’t remember them. He says that since his niece was acquitted of murder, no one could be afraid to visit. Helen Clarke insists that no one thinks about that anymore.
Helen Clarke and Uncle Julian each have their versions of the truth that they believe, despite the fact that Merricat’s experiences in the village prove that everyone still thinks about the murder and are, indeed, afraid of the family.
Uncle Julian remarks on how fascinating the case is. Helen Clarke tries to stop him from talking about it, but he mentions tasting arsenic and Mrs. Wright wants to know more. Merricat and Constance look somber, but are actually happy that Uncle Julian has an audience. Mrs. Wright can’t help remarking that the deed happened in this house.
As one of the only socially proper characters in the book, Helen Clarke can’t stand the idea of actually talking directly about the poisoning. Merricat and Constance apparently don’t mind having these traumatic memories discussed, perhaps because Uncle Julian discusses them so frequently.
Constance and Uncle Julian begin to reminisce about what happened. The family was having dinner, and there was arsenic in the sugar. Uncle Julian put the sugar on his blackberries, but not as much as some people. Constance eats neither sugar nor berries, which counted against her at her trial. Helen Clarke tries to stop them from continuing on this subject, as she pities Constance, but Constance insists she’s fine.
The fact that the arsenic was in the sugar may gesture to the assumption that young girls are unfailingly sweet and lovely. Merricat has never fit this sexist stereotype; she is metaphorically the sugar filled with poison. Ironically, Merricat’s attempt to save Constance by putting the poison in a food she doesn’t eat almost got Constance convicted of the murders.
Uncle Julian says he feels lucky that the poisoning happened to him, because it’s so sensational. He begins to doubt whether it actually happened, but Constance assures him it did. He invites Helen Clarke to see the dining room where it occurred, saying he wanted to be a witness at the trial, but he wasn’t well enough. Helen Clarke prepares to leave, but Mrs. Wright wants to see the dining room.
Uncle Julian unfailingly reacts to the poisoning in unexpected ways. His happiness at having been poisoned adds to the topsy-turvy sense of reality in the house. Yet, despite his constant obsession with the murders, he also doubts the truth of his own memories, casting doubt on the account the reader receives of this essential event.
Uncle Julian takes Mrs. Wright into the dining room. He remarks that the table is now far too large for what remains of the family, but they feel they must keep it. He says the family was generally happy. Merricat wonders what Mrs. Wright would do if she met her in the village. Uncle Julian points out where each member of the family was sitting that night, saying that Merricat was not at the table because she had been sent to bed without dinner. Constance says that she would often bring her sister food in her room when she was in trouble.
Merricat seems to think that Mrs. Wright would drop her politeness if she met her in the village, gesturing to the hostile mob mentality towards the Blackwoods. Uncle Julian thinks the family was happy, but Merricat obviously was not or she wouldn’t have poisoned them. This oversight suggests that Merricat was often forgotten or left out. Constance, however, has always brought her food, just as she constantly cooks for her now.
Uncle Julian describes the food that night, much of which came from Constance’s garden. He points out that if Constance wanted to poison them, she could have used any number of poisonous plants, which he describes in detail, rather than arsenic. Mrs. Wright protests that Constance shouldn’t have had to cook dinner, but Uncle Julian says that Mrs. Blackwood was an awful cook. Helen Clarke interjects that Mrs. Wright wasn’t supposed to bring up this topic, and they should leave.
Constance took over many of the traditional roles of the female head of the household even while their mother was still alive. In her lack of food-related skills, their mother broke from a long and important tradition of Blackwood women cooking and canning food, perhaps suggesting some betrayal of this female heritage and of her daughters.
Uncle Julian says that Constance scrubbed the sugar bowl before the police or the doctor even arrived, which was strange. She says there was a spider in it. Uncle Julian speaks of the pain he was in after the poisoning, while Constance was in jail. Mrs. Wright says she’s always wanted to talk to the Blackwoods to find out the real story. She lays out the evidence. Constance bought the arsenic—for rat poison, Constance says—she cooked the dinner, she didn’t call a doctor until too late, she washed the sugar bowl, she told the police that the poisoned deserved their fate, and that it was her fault. Uncle Julian doesn’t think that Constance meant what she said to the police.
Constance expresses the strange importance of minor problems in this house with her assertion that getting a spider out of the sugar bowl was more urgent than her dead family sprawled at the dinner table. Mrs. Wright seems typical of the villagers, as well, in her desire to figure out the truth of the matter. Her curiosity also helps the reader learn the facts without Merricat directly narrating the past, which she wouldn’t do, as she never seems to directly think about it. Admittedly, the evidence against Constance seems quite convincing.
Uncle Julian reminds Mrs. Wright that she’s met Constance, which she’s forgotten. Mrs. Wright can’t reconcile the Constance she’s met with her image of the murderer. Helen Clarke finally tells Mrs. Wright that she’s leaving. Merricat points out that Mrs. Wright hasn’t drunk any of her tea. The guests say their farewells, and Merricat laughs to see Helen Clarke driving away almost before Mrs. Wright is entirely in the car.
Though Mrs. Wright seems to believe Constance committed the murders, Constance doesn’t seem in the least like a murderer. The idea of Constance as murderer seems to have taken on almost mythic proportions, and it’s difficult to remember that she’s a real person. Mrs. Wright hasn’t drunk her tea because she’s afraid of it, and Merricat won’t let her forget. Pointing out Mrs. Wright’s fear is consistent with Merricat’s own need to prove herself above fear by going to the café—to Merricat, fear is the enemy.
Constance expresses exasperation with Helen Clarke and points out that Merricat was teasing Mrs. Wright. Merricat says she always wants to increase the terror of frightened people. Constance applauds Uncle Julian’s performance. He says he’ll rest until dinner. Merricat brings the tea tray to the kitchen and watches while Constance cleans up the broken pitcher. She asks whether Constance is going to follow Helen Clarke’s advice on reentering the world, and Constance says she doesn’t know yet.
Ironically, Constance dislikes Helen Clarke’s insistence that the poisoning is a taboo subject far more than she dislikes Mrs. Wright talking about it impolitely. The fact that she regards what Uncle Julian has done as a performance suggests that it has been removed from reality and may not be entirely true. Constance’s calmness about the broken pitcher shows that Merricat frequently has outbursts of this sort.